When we brought Maddie and Abra home from FUR in December of 2022, we let them roam our master bedroom and adjoining bathroom. We gave them a new litterbox, cat beds, a cat tree, food, water and toys. And as soon as I opened their carriers, they ran under our bed. For a week, I would sit on the floor of my bedroom in 30-minute increments where they could watch me from under the bed. Sometimes I talked to them. Sometimes I read aloud. Sometimes I just scrolled through my phone. Each time, I made sure it was quiet and calm (that meant keeping my kids and other cats out) and I would carefully peek under the bed. Because they are both black, often all I saw were four wide yellow eyes. On day 4, Maddie very slowly slunk out from under the bed, ears tucked down, and she let me pet her. You’d have sworn I won the lottery as happy as I was! It took Abra until day 7 to come out while we were there. Now, they sleep on our bed, Maddie will headbutt my husband’s face until he pets her and Abra follows me around.
This type of fear is very common in cats when they are in a new environment. Fear can also be triggered if cats are confined or have to go for a car ride. My cat Bear is afraid of my cat Salem. My cat Anakin is afraid of strange noises. In short, cats can have as many fears as people have. And sometimes, fear is mistaken for other things, like being feral or mean.
How to Spot Fear in a Cat
You can probably predict that a cat in fear may hide, or freeze in place, or run away or lose their appetite. These are all things Anakin does when he’s afraid. But think about the last time you were intensely afraid. Did you snap at or become short with someone? Did you tip toe or walk quietly to not draw attention to yourself? These are instinctual behaviors, and cats have them, too.
Cats who are afraid will walk slowly, their body very low to the ground with their tail down and ears tucked. This is what Bear does when her path crosses with Salem’s in our house. It’s as if she is telling him, “I don’t want any trouble. Leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.” But if Salem sneaks up on Bear (intentionally or not), Bear’s fearful reaction is quiet different. She hisses and spits, she swats at him and, once, when he reacted in defense, she bit him. Bear will also go bathroom outside the litter box, especially if Salem is between her and the box or has recently used it. (For the record, we have four litter boxes in our house.) And those wide eyes I mentioned Maddie and Abra had when we first brought them home? Yep, another sign of fear.
All of these behaviors are perfectly normal. And once you recognize that these behaviors are due to fear, there are things you can do to help your kitty be less afraid.
How to Help a Fearful Cat
We’d all love to be able to get rid of whatever is causing our furry friend fear, but sometimes, it’s just not possible. Our kids running through the house often scares Anakin, but we can’t get rid of my kids. And Salem scares Bear, but Salem is just as much part of our family as Bear is. So what’s a cat lover to do?
First, give them safe spaces. Bear feels safe when she is near me, so there is a bed for her under my desk when I work from home and if I’m sitting in the living room, I encourage her to jump up on the couch next to me. (Ok, sometimes she crawls on me and tries to sleep on my chest, but I’m ok with that, too.) Anakin feels safe in our son’s room, so his bedroom door stays open during the day. Maddie and Abra feel safe under our bed or inside our bathroom cupboards, so we cleaned out a cupboard and put a kitty bed in it.
Next, give a fearful cat their space. Don’t try to pick up or hug a cat who is afraid. That could heighten the kitty’s stress and cause them to react in a negative way. Instead, stay a foot or two away, talk to them in a soft voice and don’t make direct eye contact. Give slow blinks in their direction. You can offer them treats or a wand toy to play with, but keep your hands below their eye level so they don’t feel threatened.
Finally, respect your cat’s autonomy. Your cat is an independent, living creature, not a toy or a robot. If your cat doesn’t want to be touched, don’t touch them. If your cat wants to hide under the bed, don’t force them out. If you have two cats that don’t like each other, give them ways to avoid one another. And don’t parade your cats in front of strangers like an elementary school show-and-tell. Now, by all means, train your cat and reward positive behaviors but never punish negative or fearful behaviors.
Some cats, just like some people, have a more fearful personality. Does that mean they won’t be a loving companion? Absolutely not. Does it mean you need to take your time and earn their trust? 100% yes.
We’ve taught our kids what to watch for and what to do (and not do) if one of our cats becomes very scared so that we can all be respectful of one another’s emotions. Bear will almost certainly never be cuddled up on the couch with Salem, and we’re ok with that. Both kitties are loved and have safe places in the house when they need them.
How have you handled fearful cats in your household? Share your stories below.